Waiting for the barbarians

by J. M. Coetzee

Paper Book, 1982

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

New York, Penguin books, 1982

Description

The modern classic from double Booker Prize winner J.M. Coetzee - soon to be a major film starring Mark Rylance, Robert Pattinson and Johnny Depp For decades the Magistrate has run the affairs of a tiny frontier settlement, ignoring the impending war between the barbarians and the Empire, whose servant he is. But when the interrogation experts arrive, he is jolted into sympathy with the victims and into a quixotic act of rebellion which lands him in prison, branded as an enemy of the state. Waiting for the Barbarians is an allegory of oppressor and oppressed. Not just a man living through a crisis of conscience in an obscure place in remote times, the Magistrate is an analogue of all men living in complicity with regimes that ignore justice and decency.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member annbury
Wonderfully written and profoundly sad, this story of a nameless garrison of a nameless Empire is astonishingly pertinent to the here and now. Or perhaps it is pertinent about many times and places, because it deals with the perversion of political power, and the way in which individuals deals with that perversion. All too often, of course, governments have done horrible things to alleged enemies, to further their own power. When "civilized" people are confronted with the knowledge of what is happening, the natural thing is to forget about civilization and join right in, accepting the government view that the others are murderous enemies. A slightly less natural thing is to look away, and to pretend that what is happening is not happening.

The civilized person in this novel is the Magistrate of a border town/garrison, somewhere on the frontier of an unnamed Empire. Tima and place are unspecific in an historical context, though Coetzee creates a powerful and beautiful image of a remote near- desert landscape, where the seasons come and go in passages of extraordinary beauty. The Magistrate's peace -- and the town's -- is shattered with the arrival of a senior intelligence officer, who starts rounding up prisoners from outside the walls as sources of information on the massive barbarian attack he (and his Empire) expect (or say they expect). The Magistrate tries to first to prevent the torture of the prisoners, and then to ignore it, but cannot distance himself as he would wish.

Other reviews outline the story; suffice it to say that the Magistrate progresses from pained acquiescence to the actions of the intelligence officer, through an off-focus love affair with a barbarian girl. to eventual imprisonment as a traitor, to eventual defiance, to total humilation, and finally back to a magistrate's role -- but the magistrate of a town that is "Waiting for the Barbarians".

This book operates on all kinds of levels -- political, personal, and aesthetic -- and never reaches any definitive conclusions. But for me at least it is extraordinarily powerful, and very beautiful.

Unlike some readers, I didn't find it oppressively negative. It does take a grim view of some elements of human nature (particularly the nature of power) but it does not present those as the only way that people can be. Tragic, perhaps, rather than oppressively negative.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
I found this a bleak and dour novel, with the protagonist doing dumb and immoral things. And the accounts of torture were disturbing and the good did not prosper. . The book has a pessimistic view which made the short novel seem long to me.
LibraryThing member fieldnotes
Coetzee writes for academics. He writes to teach lessons, to have his themes discussed and perhaps to be chuckled at. I find his books rather deliberate, hardened and inevitable. Now, he’s a fine writer, can turn a passable phrase and get conceptual without becoming a total bore; but, he has a tendency to interpret his books for you and the mannerisms and hobbies of the characters in “Waiting for the Barbarians” slot them too neatly into representative categories, which makes this more of an allegory or morality tale than a novel.

Set against the (necessary) paranoia and deafness of empire, “Waiting for the Barbarians” inhabits the balanced and reflective perspective of an amicable boondocks magistrate who finds his duties growing morally questionable just when they should be at their automatic, pre-retirement best. He’s the nice-guy-who-didn’t-really-want-to-have-to-accept-his-complicity-with-the-atrocities-committed-on-the-periphery-of-empire, the guy who is almost remorseful that he can’t quite turn a blind eye to torture and arbitrary imprisonment . . . oh wait . . . that’s right, unless you are currently some sort of progressive activist or a waterboarding cog, he is supposed to represent you! And what do you need to know? Well, unless you are a television-fed collision monkey, nothing, probably, and Cotezee doesn’t motivate with his writings; he just sort of lays it out there, where you knew it was.

His treatment of permanence, of marking, of spoiling and claiming, losing and being forgotten, is multi-layered and well integrated into the love relationships of the book. However, the interplay of these themes would have been more rewarding if the narrator did not signpost and dissect each area of overlap.

A few examples of the endearing narrative deadpan: addressing his cock, “Why do I have to carry you about from woman to woman, I asked: simply because you were born without legs? Would it make any difference to you if you were rotted in a cat or a dog instead of in me?”

“They are tearing down the houses built against the south wall of the barracks, he tells me: they are going to extend the barracks and build proper cells. ‘Ah yes,’ I say; ‘time for the black flower of civilization to bloom.’ He does not understand.”

And then an example of the more pedantic and obvious, “Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends it bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation. A mad vision yet a virulent one.”

The novel operates capably along this spectrum.
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LibraryThing member gypsysmom
Well, I must say that this book was much better than the other Coetzee that I read. In fact, it was quite profound. I think it will be one of those books that I will think about for a long time. So, thanks marko for the suggestion.

The magistrate of a small outpost in an unnamed empire is quite happy in his life. Nothing much happens but he has his friends and interests and an amenable girl to visit when the urge strikes him. Then Colonel Joll from the Third Bureau in the empire's Civil Guard arrives from the capital. He has captured an old man and a young boy along the way and he tortures them to learn what he can about the barbarians' plans. The magistrate is upset by the torture which results in the old man's death. Colonel Joll heads out into the plains and brings back some more prisoners who are also tortured. One of these is a young girl for whom the magistrate feels pity and remorse and perhaps love, as well. He starts by massaging her feet, which were broken at the ankle and healed improperly, and continues to clean and massage her and have her sleep in her bed. However, they do not have intercourse. After a year the magistrate decides to return the girl to her people. It is a long and difficult journey and when he returns Colonel Joll is at the outpost. There is a rumour that the magistrate has been giving the barbarians information and he is thrown in jail. He is left there for months while Joll leads a war party to deal with the barbarians. Terror about the barbarian attack mounts although there is no evidence that the barbarians have any plan to attack. A few soldiers and Colonel Joll eventually make it back just before winter sets in. They were never attacked but the barbarians led them into the desert and then disappeared. The armed men could not survive in the desert. Meanwhile, in the town, the soldiers that were left have terrorized the citizens and then abandoned them. Any private citizen who could manage it has also abandoned the town. Food supplies are diminished and it is doubtful that those who remain can survive the winter. However, the magistrate takes charge again to make what preparations can be made.

So, the question is: just who are the barbarians in this story? Is it the nomadic people who just seem to want to live life as they always have? Or is it the "civilized" people from the empire who torture, kill, maim, lie, cheat, rape etc.? The parallels between this story and the European treatment of aboriginals whether in North America, or in Australia or Africa are obvious. My feeling is that the barbarians are all around us. Some people are worse and some people are better. The magistrate in this book at least had a conscience and thought about his role. After reading this book I think I now believe that Coetzee has a conscience, which is more than I would have given him credit for after reading Disgrace.

This following passage was one that resonated with me:
I think of a young peasant who was once brought before me in the days when I had jurisdiction over the garrison. He had been committed to the army for three years by a magistrate in a far-off town for stealing chickens. After a month here he tried to desert. He was caught and brought before me. He wanted to see his mother and his sisters again, he said. "We cannot just do as we wish," I lectured him. "We are all subject to the law, which is greater than any of us. The magistrate who sent you here, I myself, you--we are all subject to the law." He looked at me with dull eyes, waiting to hear the punishment, his two stolid escorts behind him, his hands manacled behind his back. "You feel that it is unjust, I know, that you should be punished for having the feelings of a good son. You think you know what is just and what is not. I understand. We all think we know." I had no doubt, myself, then that at each moment each one of us, man, woman, child, perhaps even the poor old horse turning the mill-wheel, knew what was just: all creatures come into the world bringing with them the memory of justice. "But we live in a world of laws," I said to my poor prisoner, "a world of the second-best. There is nothing we can do about that. We are fallen creatures. All we can do is to uphold the laws, all of us without allowing the memory of justice to fade." After lecturing him I sentenced him. He accepted the sentence without murmur and his escort marched him away. I remember the uneasy shame I felt on days like that. I would leave the courtroom and return to my apartment and sit in the rocking-chair in the dark all evening, without appetite, until it was time to go to bed. (p. 136)

When I was attending law school I took jurisprudence which is the study of the philosophy of law and the question of what is justice is one that we discussed frequently. Laws are not always just. In fact, depending on your position and point of view, they are often not just. I don't know that I believe we can only uphold the laws. Sometimes I think we have to challenge them. But certainly we can't allow "the memory of justice to fade".
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LibraryThing member siafl
This is my favourite book by Coetzee and Coetzee has now become my favourite author. This book is masterful with elegant narrative and a display of beautiful words used like no one else could. It reminds me of the movie "Dances with Wolves" until the latter stages of the book, as well as some aspects of The Lord of the Rings. A small book that feels ambitious enough to tackle Goliath, and knowing that this has been one of Coetzee's earlier production, I couldn't help wondering whether the author has thought about reserving something for the future and not to exhaust his creative power all in one book. Thank goodness that he hasn't held back with this one, and congratulations to him for subsequently finding new heights to submit in the literary world.

A book I am going to buy and slowly examine at a later time. Such a lot to learn from an otherwise unimposing volume.
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LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
This is one of those short books that impacts you sometimes like a punch in the gut, and sometimes with a far more quiet, lingering power. Beautifully written in a spare, but often lyrical, style and intimate first-person voice, it has the quality of a fairytale or allegory. Narrated by a man we know only as the "Magistrate" in a far-off province of the "Empire," the title becomes increasingly ironic and ominous. There's mention of muskets, and of sun-glasses, but otherwise this is both timeless and of no place. Most dystopic literature is explicitly set or implied to be in our future, as a warning. But despite those two rather modern devices, this feels like it could be a tale of Ancient Egypt or China or Rome or the British Empire. This isn't so much a tale of the past or the future but of a timeless cycle. We are the barbarians. We are the empire. It's a pitiless, even bleak, sometimes horrifying story. The narrator spares the reader nothing, and nothing is spared him. Published in 1980, I think it's only gained power with the years. Had I read this before the events of 9/11, maybe I could have distanced myself from feeling implicated. But having seen the fear those events brought to America, having heard the defenses of torture, the details of its practice, meant this often was a very disturbing--even if rewarding--read.… (more)
LibraryThing member BooksForDinner
The first Coetzee I've read. Found the main character to be sad in so many ways--growing old, body failing, unfulfilling relationships, loss of power, abuse, embarrassment. Ooof.
LibraryThing member jentifer
A very effective allegory of "Empire" and conquer, this novel has some lovely imagery and unforgettable characters - only two of which have proper names.
LibraryThing member technodiabla
I love the format of Waiting for the Barbarians--the timeless allegory that could take place anywhere. Very few names were used. That sparse style really lends itself to the story, or lesson rather, which is a quite layered and profound story of the cycle of civilizations. That said, I felt the ending fizzled out a bit. I kept thinking more was going to happen than did. Too many holes and unanswered questions. But worth a read and a lot of thinking about the world and its great civilizations.

P.S. Expect many unsavory sex-like acts. Nearly half the book is devoted to such topics. Not exactly graphic, but definitely icky (to me anyway).
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
A visionary novel by J. M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians is challenging with a lucid style and deceptive simplicity. It is an allegory of a land that seems familiar yet cannot be identified with any specificity. The protagonist, known as the Magistrate of the local outpost of the Empire, tells a story of the Barbarians poised on the edge of the Empire waiting. The story suggests conflict, yet there are no battle scenes. The Empire seems as amorphous as the threat from the Barbarians. There are even moments that seem Kafkaesque in their sheer surrealness.
The primary details of the story center on the relationship between the Magistrate and a young blind girl, a barbarian who begs for to survive. The Magistrate takes her in and the relationship that develops between them mirrors the growing dissatisfaction of the Magistrate with the Empire. He eventually takes action that will have significant consequences for his life, leading to lessons about freedom, justice, and the meaning of life within the Empire. The climax of the novel is powerful in the sense that principles are powerful in the lives of humans. The allegory is effective and the story is masterful. It is not surprising that Coetzee won the Booker Prize for this novel.
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LibraryThing member Josh_Hanagarne
Want to be depressed? Look no further than the entire Coetzee catalog! This book is short, but feels much longer. The reason? The deadening hopelessness of each and every page. There is some beautiful imagery--the swarm of bees--and some flat out gorgeous writing, but each are used to tell a bleak and ultimately numbing tale of woe. No one will ever accuse Cotezee of being a Pollyanna. But has a Nobel Prize winner has ever been called optimistic? This book could be great friends with The Bluest Eye and Blindness, speaking of other relentlessly bleak books by Nobel laureates. But I liked it enough to finish it and just about everything else JM Goodnews has penned.… (more)
LibraryThing member jenkimar
In the vain hope that the author would develop a plot of some sort, I kept reading .Instead I endured a litany of rambling reverie, base fantasies and self indulgent sex, interspersed with the tired old trick of allegorical dreams. I learned nothing from this book. I got the feeling he actually finds a fascination with torture and his display of righteous indignation was a literary sham.… (more)
LibraryThing member JosephJ
Lyrically-written novel about an aged magistrate of a dominant society, who is afforded the luxury of reflection upon his own life as well as the society he holds in esteem. He, however, comes to think that the Empire is not as civilized as it seems. It is character that drives this story forward. The reader never discovers the magistrate’s name, but the reader comes to know him, or at least what he wants the reader to know about him, very well. The real conflict lies within the magistrate himself concerning his legacy, his allegiance to the not-so-worthy Empire, and his obsession with a barbarian woman who has more humanity than some of those serving the Empire.… (more)
LibraryThing member UnmuddiedLake
I reread passages to make the book more linear for me.

This is a story within a fictional empire that exists in a timeless, somewhat feral world. This Empire centres around the trade of provisions and the protection against attacks from the Barbarians who live on the outskirts of the Empire. The narrator is a magistrate who oversees the fort. He is forced to examine his loyalty to the Empire when a sinister colonel arrives one day to gather information from nomadic traders about supposedly imminent Barbarian attacks. The colonel’s method of interrogation – torture – leaves the magistrate unsure of his purpose within the Empire. In the aftermath of the torturing, one captive dies and another, a young woman, is left behind blinded and crippled.
The magistrate, for unknown reasons, attempts to bond with the girl in a ritual that is almost but not quite romantic. He then sets out to return the girl to her tribe, and subsequently suffers an accusation of treason by the colonel. Armies who have arrived to destroy the Barbarians take him prisoner. His own subsequent degradation and torture makes him a sort of fallen hero, one that forces him to examine how and why he is willing to suffer for what he believes in, as confused as it may or may not be.

It’s not out of step as far as Coetzee novels go, in their spare, descriptive exploration of degradation and redemption.
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LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
Haunting fiction about Empire and oppression. Evocative, with a faint glimmer of hope.
LibraryThing member Stevil2001
In a nonspecific land, at a nonspecific time, the barbarians are coming. They're just over the hill, but you can never quite seem them. You don't know where they are, but you know they are out there. Waiting for the Barbarians depicts a year in the life of the magistrate of a border town of the Empire, a year that sees his town come under some tough trials-- not to mention himself. The magistrate, an anonymous narrator, is one of those characters I love because he reminds me of myself, in that he's utterly fallible and unable to do the right thing, and even when he does, he does it for the wrong reasons. And then he gives up. It's a great book about our relationships to the other, to history, and to ourselves. Utterly bleak, but utterly absorbing too.… (more)
LibraryThing member kenicholls
prescient book about barbarians / terrorists and the need to have power or dominate. beautifully written.
LibraryThing member nicktingle
When I said of Coetzee's Disgrace that was written with "unbelievable assurance given the wilderness explored," I had not yet read Waiting for the Barbarians, and so did not know Coetzee's assurance had come from practice, since the wilderness of the former is pretty much the wilderness of the latter. In terms of the general social scheme (though the scene of one is somewhat less personal and more epic than the other) of oppressors oppressing the oppressed and up to their necks with dirty hands, and the general life arch of the central character, the books are duplicates. Given the sequence, in effect having read it before, no wonder I found Waiting the lesser and perhaps a lesser book. Still having read far more Henry James than I ever wanted to, I am familiar with persons, sometimes called artists, who return over and over to the same obsessions trying for yet one more turn of the screw.… (more)
LibraryThing member yooperprof
"Waiting for the Barbarians" is an exquisitely written fable about the fateful encounters between soldiers and civilians, settled folk and "barbarians" on the frontier of a great unnamed Empire something like the Roman one - but which has the advantage of rudimentary guns. The main conflict in the novel is the inner tension felt by one of the "colonizers" - a man who has devoted his life to the "imperialist" cause but who has started to question the overall "civilizing mission" of the metropolitan power.

I wish I could say this was a four star book, but I really wasn't satisfied with the way that the plot turned in the last third of the book. I thought that toward the end of the book the central character lost a great deal of his "autonomy" and became more and more of a "vehicle" for the author. Since the author is J. M. Coetzee, it is interesting to see how this plays out, but I have a preference for fictions where there is less sense of a puppetmaster manipulating plots and thoughts in order to make a point, however valid that point might be.
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LibraryThing member jkennedybalto
A real reading experience. Coetzee explores the personal experience of suffering and deprivation in all its immediacy. Also describes some unorthodox sexual experience too. The disastrous breakdown of some expeditions into unknown territory in extreme weather remind me of description of the retreat of the French army in War and Peace.… (more)
LibraryThing member maryreinert
This really is a profound book which looks at the power of empires and the affect fear has on a government and its people. Set in a remote region of an unknown country, the main character the the magistrate who oversees the area. The area is on the far reaches of the empire; on the "other side" of the region walls are the barbarians, indigenous people of varying degrees of contact with the region. Life goes on pretty normal until the arrival of the Colonel Joll of the Third Bureau with two prisoners which have been taken after a supposed raid by the barbarians. The two prisoners are an old man and a young boy who seem to know nothing about any raid. They are tortured until they tell the "truth". The magistrate is uncomfortable with the situation attempting to tell the Colonel that there is no problem with the barbarians.

Colonel Boll soon takes a force and goes out to subdue the barbarians and a new set of prisoners arrive, chained together. One young woman is tortured along with is with her father. The young woman has lost much of her eyesight and her feet are damaged. The magistrate takes pity on her and takes her to his home where he cares for her; they sleep together but there is no real connection between the two. After a new Major arrives from the empire, things go from bad to worse as there are more and more rumors of impending invasion by the barbarians. The magistrate decides to return the woman to her people and leaves with three other men and the woman to the vast unknown which is barren and cold. Through much hardship they are able to return the girl to her tribe.

When the magistrate and the other men return, he is deemed a traitor and is imprisoned and tortured. The brutality of the story is hard to read. The reader questions who the real barbarians are. Eventually, things settle down, the soldiers from the empire leave and at the end of the story, life seems to return to normal.

So - this brings into question the reasons powerful empires are constantly in fear of the weakest around them. Who are the real barbarians, is this type of war necessary, what are the affects of fear on a society. The fact that Colonel Joll returns with a broken army says a lot; they never even saw the barbarians, but were defeated by the harsh conditions of the world outside.

This is a though provoking book which could easily have been written in 2019. How powerful can one empire be and still live in a state of fear. I read "Disgrace" many years ago and it didn't have much impact; this book is truly powerful.
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LibraryThing member BenKline
A beautiful book, gorgeous prose, and excellently written. The characters are clear, concise, resonate. The theme, as old as time, but still well drawn, well created and well crafted, gets to the heart of people, to how we treat each other as humans to humans, and how we are as our baser selves.
LibraryThing member stillatim
I'm pretty sure it's no coincidence that Coetzee's two best books - this one, and Michael K - have relatively little to do with old mens' sexuality. Sure, the Magistrate goes to whores. Don't all men in Coetzee's world? But he doesn't obsess over it. Without the endlessly dull repetition of how much this old man with the paunch and the shanks and the slack and the pendulous wants to nail that fine young filly over there, Coetzee's books actually say something interesting and have some emotional force. I wonder if someone could edit out all that crap and leave, say, Disgrace, Summertime, Slow Man, and Diary of a Bad Year as four solid short stories? I imagine so.

Anyway, everyone should read this book. It's not that subtle, but none of his books are, and it's not quite as offensively blatant as Foe. It'll take you three hours to read, tops. Go for it.
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LibraryThing member bookmuse56
My thoughts:
• I had a hard time getting into this book. This is the third time I have tried to read Coetzee and have concluded that his writing style just does not appeal to me.
• I also think that this book might have had a greater impact or resounded with me better if I had read it when it was first published as over the years till now I have read/learned about oppression and colonialism and similar subjects.
• It showed the physical abuse/torture as a way to break the spirit and mind. Also thought that this helped to show while others who were part of the oppressor class/race that did not agree with the handling/treatment of the “barbarians”/oppressed would hesitate to speak out or help the oppressed. And how the oppressor controlled the messages about the oppressed.
• There was not much emotional connection for me with this book – I was surprised because of the subject matter.
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LibraryThing member AuntieClio
Wow. I am glad I pushed on with this book. Coetzee's prose may be sparse but it is complicated. The whole of Waiting for the Barbarians is complicated.

The main theme is that of Empire. Maintaining the power of Empire, which requires the "othering" of those not of the Empire. In the small town on the frontier of the Empire, the nameless Magistrate watches over a small population minding its own business, living as well as it can.

One day representatives from the Empire (and the only characters who are given names) arrive. Rumors have swirled around about the impending attack from the Barbarians, and these representatives are sent to protect the village.

Torture ensues, executions, death, the Barbarians are "swept away" leaving one young woman who remains behind begging for scraps. The Magistrate, of course, is witness to the inhumane treatment of these people and takes the woman in. Their relationship is one of the oddest I've ever read.

He spends a lot of time massaging her with oils, paying particular attention to her broken ankles and bruises. They sleep together, but there is no sex. For that he visits one of the many girls upstairs. For about 50 pages, the man has an existential crises with his penis. Why does it work for his girl upstairs but not for the girl in his bed? Why is he comfortable stroking her but not sexually? (I don't know, maybe because she is the "other?")

Eventually, the Magistrate takes the girl back to her people. It is a long journey during which horses die, guards become surly, and they all stink to high heaven because they haven't bathed. (Coetzee spends a lot of time describing the foulness a body experiences when one is not allowed to bathe.)

This journey gets the Magistrate into terrible trouble, and he soon becomes "other." Arrested, tortured, neglected, the Magistrate reflects on what has become of him and understands that the mythical Empire has become the very barbarians being warned of.

Descriptions of torture made me gasp. The creativity, the brutality. I don't wan to know if these methods have really been used or are the product of Coetzee's imagination. They drive home the point that while demonstrating to its own population what being other means, an empire becomes other itself.

Shades of Orwell and Kafka lurk in the shadows of Waiting for the Barbarians. It is not an easy book to read.
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